Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Truth, Prophecy, and Plague

At a recent family reunion, an esteemed uncle of mine made what I think was an unintentionally devastating comment. (Or, maybe it was just a comment.)  In the context of a conversation about my blog, he remarked that he had never felt that he had anything to say that anybody would be interested in reading. (My uncle, by the way, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.)

Yes. Sometimes it is a weird burden to have so much to say that maybe nobody wants to read.

I think what my uncle was referring to indirectly was not his own dearth of creativity but the wealth of material outside of ourselves and the chutzpah it takes--the shameless audacity--to write purely out of the factually gray matter of one's head.

Believe me, I am painfully aware of this--that is precisely why I generally prefer to have a glass of wine or two before launching into one of these diatribes.

At least, now, writing is no longer the act of agression that it once was when I was young and made everyone read all the crap that I wrote.

Surprising, isn't it, that for all of the shootings that we hear about, rarely do we hear about an obscure writer actually putting a gun to a resistant reader's head.  Usually, it doesn't have to come to that.

I could usually find someone to read my prose without stooping to physical threats of violence.  But, it could be argued, maybe I did lean on friends and family to an extent that, though not coercive, may have implied the threat of rejection or abandonment.

I will admit this: I actually lost a friend this way. (There were other contributing factors, but I'm sure this didn't help.) When I was half my age, I wrote half as well and had twice as much hubris (a confidence as fragile and ephemeral as a Chinese lantern floating up toward heaven, looking so much like a star, yet doomed, utterly doomed).

This friend saw something in me that really hadn't emerged yet. She saw me as a writer--which was such a kindness on her part.

Tragically, I asked her to read something I had written that wasn't very good. I knew it wasn't good. In fact, I suspected it was bad; but wishful thinking ruled the day--not because I was in my early twenties, but because I was me in my early twenties. Some people are astonishingly good writers in their twenties--Edwidge Danticat, for example. But not me.

My friend's disappointment--and the awkwardness of it--was sickeningly palpable. I felt it in my gut. The whole transaction had been perverse, as if I had set out to disprove her faith in me.  I wasn't so stupid that I couldn't have foreseen this result. It was an act of pure self-sabotage.

I would not attempt to write creatively again for many years.

The next thing I did write was a journal during a period of traveling. It didn't seem like hubris to keep a journal when traveling; in fact, it seemed like the responsible thing to do.  All of the young people at the cheap cafes with backpacks at their feet were diligently writing in notebooks, quietly recording their adventures without hope of publication.

One writes a journal for one's self.

The Transcendentalists strongly encouraged keeping a journal (like a religious practice), as a way to engage in and work out the meaning of one's life, to un-clutter the soul, to track the lessons of the day.

It combined introspection with pragmatism: the observations of a keen naturalist, a farmer's notes on weather and seasonal changes, and the philosophizing of a Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But "journaling" was a discipline for the Transcendentalists--to be done daily, without fail. It should be a complete and thorough inventory of the day, and of the condition of one's temperament, appetites, and soul.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." I don't know who said that...I looked it up just now.

It was Socrates "at his trial for impiety and corrupting youth, for which he was subsequently sentenced to death," (according to Wikipedia).

The quote refers to Socrates' interest in some esoteric religious thread that he had been pursuing intently; he would rather have died than surrender the pursuit of that thread (which thread originated with the god Apollo having made some comment, probably at a family reunion).

Personally, I couldn't believe that my uncle wouldn't be an engaging writer if he permitted himself to write about whatever the heck he wanted--without feeling the need to justify it with an elaborate framework of facts, hooks, and scoops.

I think that my mother would be a fine comic writer, but she insists she's not at all creative.

I think that everyone in my family knows, deep down, that the only difference between me, "the creative one," and them, is their embrace of the judgment that I have struggled to disavow: That writing whatever the heck you want (sans consensus of any kind) is an act of appalling arrogance.

And what (nothing!!!) could possibly be worse than committing this act, and then utterly failing to persuade or entertain anybody.  I mean, seriously: What an ass one would make of one's self! You and I both know that I have done this and that I will do it again, and may even be doing it right now.

Truthfully, I haven't written a post in a long time because I was temporarily annihilated, as a blogger, by this brief encounter--not with my uncle, per se, nor by anything he said--but with my family's deeply entrenched ideas about not making an ass of one's self unnecessarily.

I'm still not quite over it, but I am getting over it, because I just can't resist that impulse to follow the thread that binds me to my god--Apollo, apparently, god of truth, prophecy, and plague.